Big oil supports bills to make sales of 15% ethanol blends year-round

Closeup photo of a man refueling a vehicle. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

(Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — The U.S. Senate, with volatile gasoline prices top of mind, is inching toward a bipartisan solution to a years-long push for year-round sales of ethanol blends of 15% or more.

Bills to codify the change have shared support from agricultural organizations and biofuels boosters, including the congressional delegations from ag states like Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.

But the 2022 version of the Consumer and Retail Choice Act from U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has something new: support from the oil lobby.

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer interviews with Nebraska Public Media’s Bill Kelly in Lincoln on Thursday, June 2. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer interviews with Nebraska Public Media’s Bill Kelly in Lincoln on Thursday, June 2. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Oil on board

The American Petroleum Institute’s public embrace of Fischer’s four-page amendment to the Clean Air Act makes the bill much more likely to pass, political observers explained.

“We’ve long known that unleashing the full power of ethanol saves consumers money at the pump, supports family farmers, and boosts U.S. energy security,” said Fischer. “Now … we’ve been able to bring critical oil/gas, biofuel, ag, and transportation stakeholders to the table around a common-sense solution.”

What got “Big Oil” on board? Backers said the bill would create a more predictable national framework for handling E15 blends, instead of relying on a “patchwork” of state regulations.

Governors in nine ag states had sought and received federal exemptions for selling year-round ethanol blends at or above 15%, including Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The Fischer bill eliminates the need for those waivers from Environmental Protection Agency rules and should make the availability of higher ethanol blends more common.

‘Win for farmers’

The bill would eliminate EPA anti-smog regulations limiting summertime sales of E15. Research shows these higher ethanol blends do not appear to make smog worse than the 10% blends already sold all year, as Reuters reported.

Will Hupman, an API vice president for policy, praised the bill for offering national year-round access to 15% ethanol blends while “preserving access to lower ethanol gasoline blends.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts watches a Nebraskan fill up with gas during an Americans for Prosperity event that offered gas at the price when President Joe Biden took over. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association celebrated the compromise language as a win for farmers, ethanol producers and drivers.

Iowa (1st), Nebraska (2nd), Illinois (3rd) and Minnesota (4th) produce the most ethanol in the country. Nebraska’s 24 ethanol plants produce more than 2 billion gallons of biofuels a year.

‘Big damn deal’

John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union called the bill “a big damn deal,” if lawmakers can get it passed. That’s more likely with sponsors from oil states like North Dakota, he said.

“It represents hopefully the resolution to a longstanding conflict between petroleum and ethanol supporters,” he said.

He and other ethanol supporters said consistent availability is key. Oil companies, distributors and transportation companies and fueling stations want to know what they can sell and when.

Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation President Mark McHargue said in a statement that year-round E15 is “long overdue.” He expressed optimism that passage is possible with oil companies’ backing.

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Aaron Sanderford, Nebraska Examiner
Aaron Sanderford, Nebraska Examiner

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.